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Ron Stallworth on BlacKkKlansman, Trump, and our legacy of racism



Ron Stallworth’s KKK memoir. - COLLEEN GOLDHORN
  • Colleen Goldhorn
  • Ron Stallworth’s KKK memoir.
It’s common knowledge that Colorado Springs and its surrounding areas are “white towns.”

The black population in the Springs hovers right over 6 percent according to the U.S.  Census, and the Hispanic/Latinx community a little more than 17 percent. Like many American cities, the Springs once participated in de facto segregation. In fact, some areas of town were once known as “sundown towns,” meaning a person of color best not be caught there after dark.

The Springs is hardly the only Western city with less-than-average diversity. Portland, Oregon, was once dubbed “the whitest city in America” and the state of Oregon was alone in not allowing black people to migrate there until 1926. Our neighbor, Utah, one of the most conservative states in the U.S., has a black population under 1.5 percent.

During the Klan’s resurgence (when it changed its messaging to appeal to more Protestants, by inclusively berating both Catholics and Jews) in the 1920s, both Colorado and Utah held large public marches. At one time the Colorado Legislature was more than peppered with high-ranking Klan members.

But these days, as a community, we’re shocked when acts of racism worthy of national headlines occur. Take the case of Devin Turrell who was recently brutally beaten in Colorado Springs after mistakenly walking into the wrong property at the address of his VRBO, allegedly because of his race. Or recall the email sent to the Colorado College student body this spring, demanding the resignation of the only two black deans using rhetoric like “moon crickets,” to describe them. Or think back to 2017, when a swastika was spray-painted on the Temple Beit Torah synagogue.

Hell, back in 2016, Colorado voters actually turned down an amendment to the state constitution that would have removed archaic language that allows forced, unpaid labor by those convicted of a crime — also known as slavery. (Side note: More “no” votes came out of El Paso County than any other county in the state.)

Though it may wax and wane, racism has never been far from us. It would behoove us to stay awake to racist messages like “Make America Great Again,” or “the browning of America” or “Let’s build a wall.”

Question: When has the United States not been brown?

Ron Stallworth, author of the book Black Klansman: A Memoir, an account of his personal experiences as a black man and Colorado Springs Police detective infiltrating the local KKK in the 1970s, says racism can happen anywhere.

“There doesn’t have to be [certain] conditions present,” he says. “You have these people who have a certain belief pattern and want to pursue that [belief] in their organization and they try to establish themselves.”

But, Stallworth says, places that are less diverse than others can help fuel this ideology: “I think racism is relative to where you live.”

Stallworth was behind an unbelievable investigation that started with him responding to a local Gazette classified ad looking for KKK recruits. It’s his story that’s recounted in BlacKkKlansman, the Spike Lee movie set to hit theaters Aug. 10. The Indy also wrote about Stallworth in a cover story on April 13, 2016.
Looking back on his most famous operation, Stallworth told me that, “in the 7½ months of this investigation, not one cross was burnt in Colorado Springs. I prevented two of them directly, [and] nobody had to wake up to a burning cross terrorizing them.”

The investigation only ended because Stallworth, who employed a body double for the ruse, was asked to take over the local chapter. “The leader of the Klan at the time [who was in the Army] was leaving and they wanted stability in their leadership outside of military personnel,” Stallworth explains. “He nominated me to become the local chapter leader because [I] had proven [myself] to be a loyal, dedicated Klansman... When I told my police chief this, he said the investigation had gone too far. I was told not to have any further contact with the Klan’s people and I was ordered to destroy all files, all reports, and all evidence of this investigation, so the public would never find out that we had undercover cops in the Klan.”

Obviously he didn’t.

During his career, Stallworth says he experienced run-of-the-mill, systemic, institutional racism as he rose in rank (both here and in Utah). In his memoir, Stallworth recounts, “you recognize there are no blacks in this department, this is lily white. You’re going to be up against a lot to make yourself a success.”

Later in his career, in Utah, Stallworth often wasn’t even called by name but referred to as “that black cop,” because he was often the only one. Nevertheless, within a period of six years, he received three governor appointments to state committees and became the state’s gang intelligence coordinator, a position created for him.

These experiences taught him when and how to use his voice, he says. In his book, Stallworth writes, “I knew who I was, I knew my character and I knew what it felt like to be called those names… I’m not the type to keep my mouth shut when someone gets in my face, but I knew I could pick and choose my moments to do battle.”

It’s hard to believe that we once again live in a time when some are trying to revive a Norman Rockwell version of America (that never existed by the way). Families are being ripped apart, black males are continuing to be killed for sport, athletes are ridiculed for peaceful protests, and policies that disproportionately affect people of color’s access to quality housing and education are still being instituted.

Stallworth, who used his voice 40 years ago, is speaking up again, this time against “that racist piece of shit” (also known as President Donald Trump). There is no time, he says, to sleep through elections.

“What David Duke [former Grand Wizard of the KKK] was preaching to me in 1978 about the Klan and what the Klan wanted to do regarding immigration is the same rhetoric, the same position that Donald J. Trump advocates and ran on and is trying to implement,” Stallworth says. “Donald J. Trump is basically echoing everything David Duke was saying in the ’70s ... Trump has given white supremacists everywhere permission to come out of the shadows.”

In his memoir, Stallworth says, “If one black man aided by a bevy of good, decent, dedicated and open liberal-minded whites and Jews can succeed in prevailing over a group of white racists, by making them look like the ignorant fools that they truly are, imagine what a nation of like-minded individuals can accomplish.”

Stallworth believes his book and film will have a big impact by igniting a widespread platform that generates conversation and action. Stallworth raves that, “Spike [Lee] has outdone himself” and says the message for today’s viewer is clear. Lee, he says, “is challenging us to WAKE UP!”

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